Having to compete with the more movie-genic orcas, clownfishs or dolphins, and burdened by a striking resemblance to one of our most-feared land animals, it is probably unsurprising that the humble European eel has no place in our culture as a cherished marine creature.

To eels, I doubt that is a particularly disconcerting state of affairs. However perhaps it should be, as after many years of largely-unnoticed, yet uncannily-similar news reports, European eel stocks are thought to be declining massively  (see articles from: 2003, 2007, and earlier in 2009).

Most sources suggest a decline of 90% since the 70s, with the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas asserting that “the most widespread and highest employing single fish stock in Europe is dangerously close to collapse” and “outside safe biological limits”. Many cite a number of causes ranging from overfishing, river barriers cutting-off natural migration patterns, pollution, species-specific parasites and oscillating ocean current patterns due to climate change.

Since four of the five explanations are human in origin (assuming anthropocentric global warming), we have a significant degree of responsibility for the imminent extinction of this species, not to mention the ripple-effect on its predators and food sources. Thus I would argue we also have an ethical obligation to rectify at least this one small-scale instance of our general degradation of other forms of life co-habiting this planet.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that globally 52% of fish stocks are ‘fully exploited’ and 28% are ‘over-exploited’. So perhaps, starting with this case of overfishing, we should reconsider our perception of ecosystems.

Obviously this is not an isolated narrative – degradation exists everywhere – from the breaking-off of coral as souvenirs by snorkel-divers, to the oft-cited global melting of the ice caps and the subsequent polar bear’s plight. There’s always a poster-child for every localised ecological disaster; however something more pressing differentiates this situation from the rest:

Whilst many other environmental projects are often hindered by (the belief in) difficulties of international co-operation, the issue of the UK’s eel stocks is entirely within our control and moreover in our benefit to deal with, yet we chose to ignore these two facts. In short, ‘The Eel Situation’ is a microcosm of a wider underlying irrationality that is endemic to our decision-making process.

The UK Environment Agency has proposed setting up a designated eel-baiting ‘season’ with tough restrictions operating outside this period. This allows stocks to replenish, ensuring that the industry will not prematurely wipe itself out. Whilst this only addresses one of the presumed causes (other solutions including for example building ‘bypasses’ around river dams) it is arguably the most immediately effective method for allowing stocks to replenish in time for next year’s season. Though the anticipated byelaw would effectively resolve Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, such measures have consistently been met with fierce resistance from fishermen whose livelihoods would be impacted.

Whilst it would mean that being an eel fisherman will become a seasonal job, it would be preserved as a lifelong one, rather than one that will disappear completely within the next decade or so. Similarly, whilst the UK is not the only ‘harvester’ of eels in the world, global stocks are declining, so accusations of the legislation being ‘uncompetitive’ do not wash.

Protest seems to me illogical, as the proposed byelaw both preserves the species, and simultaneously protects the jobs that rely on its very existence. So statements in news reports such as “fishermen hope that their tiny industry won’t be disappearing before the fish” frustrate me no end – would the situation be any better if their ‘tiny industry’ disappeared with the fish?!

Dishearteningly, there is a widespread impression that environment agencies, the UNFCC, and NGOs alike, have some malicious hidden agenda. I would be the first to advocate that with incentives such as money and power, political decisions are sometimes influenced to the detriment of the ‘small people’. However if the suspicion were true that some shady alliance of green groups (with bigger concerns such as climate change) are conspiring to kill off ‘tiny industries’, it begs the question: “to what end?”

Answer: To save the planet.

Is that not an altruistic enough cause, for all its largely non-quantifiable benefits? If you think not, this becomes more a debate about your own ethical values, than about what kinds of practical measures should be taken. In fact, though the UKEA has opened consultation, fishing organisations have flatly refused to engage with the idea of limiting fishing quotas to a particular season.

It seems to me that the refusal is a last ditch attempt to prevent progressive, necessary and self-preserving measures from being taken; parochial self-denial is so entrenched that the fishermen seem to believe that exterminating stocks themselves is somehow better than being subjected to some oppressive governmental legislation.

It is not difficult to see the similarities between this issue and those on a grander scale. For instance, consider the (often deliberate) obstacles facing the pivotal Copenhagen Conference later this year, touted as the last opportunity to prevent runaway climate change.

To me the eels’ story highlights our general attitude to the environment: a narcissistic faith in our scientific comprehension of nature’s mechanisms, and a selfish speciesism, both of which cloud our ability to act prudently amidst bigger-than-us uncertainty.

The UK’s relative lack of internal barriers, as compared to other countries who-shall-not-be-named, expose this self-destructive nature; whilst on global ecological matters we can hide political dis-action behind a veneer of collective international irrationality, within our own country’s and communities’ sovereignties,  we still don’t act.

Upon reflection, if we as a species are as inherently irrational, conceited and unsustainable as these stories suggest, then perhaps we sadly deserve the consequences, whatever they may be.


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